On Oden, Black People, Portland, and Money

Ever since the Oden interview hit, I've detected an undercurrent of confusion and frustration, bordering on incredulity, actually, regarding his statement that Portland is not a good city for a young black man with a lot of money. Considering how loaded this statement is with connotations of race and class, it's understandable that an overwhelmingly White fan base would not understand what he means. I know this statement became such a ridiculous cliche during the 90s, but this is one case where it truly applies -- it's a black thing, you wouldn't understand.

Unless, of course, you had a chance to hear from other actual Black people who have lived and grown up here, like I have.

In which case, perhaps it might make a bit more sense.

This post, it should be stated, is not so much a defense of Greg as it is a speculative interpretation of what he meant by that one statement, coming from someone who is certainly nowhere near Greg's tax bracket, but who has a measure of experience learning how to feel comfortable in my own skin as a Black person in the Pacific Northwest, especially learning how to get along with upper-middle-class people with whom I had little in common.

In high school, in my life as a professional Christian (church worship leader), at certain concerts and conventions, and throughout my career in general, I've been accustomed to living as the only Black person for miles. As a claims auditor right now, I am regularly the only Black person in the room, and one of maybe 8 or 9 brown-skinned people working at a company of about 600 or so.

I cannot adequately tell you how intensely burdensome that is, not without launching into a thousand different stories. It is a burden that is ever-present, and like other forms of social stigma, it is something that I have learned not to reference very often (if at all) because I do not want to upset the apple cart and prevent people from being at ease around me. Other than outright malfeasance, few things will either get you fired or prevent you from advancing like not being able to fit in with others around you.

Like Morpheus famously said, the dynamics of race and culture are all around us... even right here... in this very thread. Being Black in Portland, from a professional standpoint, means choosing in ways large and small to consciously (and eventually subconsciously) adapt to a different set of cultural standards and markers, or risk being misjudged and having your livelihood threatened in ways that you usually can't even see, much less understand or control.

Does this mean that these kinds of struggles are exclusive to Blacks? Not hardly. But it does mean that for Blacks, it looks and feels a certain way, and if no one else is carrying that particular kind of burden, the isolation can be thick and palpable.

In some of these threads, I've heard the idea advanced that Greg would have had his other, mostly Black, teammates from which to gain support and a sense of community. I suppose there is some truth to that, although I do think the combination of the expectations of being the #1 overall pick and having a rehab regimen that is separate from the team mitigates those advantages significantly.

But consider the flipside... from what we know of Greg's personality, he also wasn't necessarily the most typical Black guy, either. (Someone said in another thread they heard he was like "the Whitest Black dude ever.") The complexity and ambiguity of racial identity notwithstanding, there is also another kind of isolation one feels when confronted with a group of people who are supposed to be like you, but to who feel, to you, just as foreign.

In my early twenties (I'm now in my mid-30s) I spent the better part of a decade living in Chicago, a place with its own set of quirks and simmering racial dynamics. But it wasn't until becoming friends with and connecting with other Black people from Chicago and beyond that I truly began to have a sense of just how "Portland" I was... I had developed, without knowing it, a persona of The Black Guy that White People Love to Have As a Friend.

Which, on the plus side, meant I had a lot of friends! ... sort of... but I often felt like few of them really, REALLY knew me... really understood what my experience was like. But I did develop some great relationships during my time there, and it helped me to have a greater sense of my own identity, and helped me to feel more comfortable standing out.

I have a sense that, even if everything would have gone great for Greg Oden's career here in Portland, he still would have carried a similar sense of being-known-but-not-really-being-known, perhaps with fans, management as well as fellow players And of course, not all of that dynamic is racial in nature... but some of it is.

And then there's the last issue ... the money.

I laughed pretty loud at what Dunemonkey said in the original interview thread:

Old and busted: Sitting on the bench collecting paychecks to become set for life.

New Hotness: Being above sitting on the bench collecting paychecks now that you’re set for life.

I get the hypocrisy there, and I am not absolving Greg of any of his poor decision-making ... and in Titus' 1080 interview, I think he even said that he was sort of egging Greg on to trash the Blazers and Portland in general, and he was determined not to do it.

But consider how the money colors the perception. Consider how easy it is to be irritated with someone who doesn't seem like they're giving their all when you know exactly how much they make, AND you know how much it costs YOU to be able to attend a Blazer game AND pay for parking, arena food, T-shirts for the kids, etc.

Then consider how much of the opposition to Mitt Romney's candidacy has to do with his policies and how much of it has to do with his perceived persona of being rich and entitled?

I'm telling you, it's not easy being wealthy. I'd love to try it, of course... but I have observed the extent to which it makes you a target. And it's especially not easy being wealthy and Black, having to navigate the tricky dynamics of race and class while every day you are trying to come out on top of a high-stakes enterprise filled with people who make no secret of their desire to replace you.

Being wealthy, and Black... in Portland? As a teenager or early twentysomething?

Before you spout off about how wrong he was, just try to understand a little deeper. If you were in that position, you'd probably feel the same way.

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